Incident transforms bullied South Fayette student
A South Fayette teenager's decision to record a bullying incident with his iPad has “changed everything” for the quiet, reserved boy, his mother said.
For starters, her son, Christian Stanfield, 15, a sophomore at South Fayette High School, ate in the lunchroom for the first time on Wednesday, and he plans to use the ordeal to work on changing state law to allow victims to obtain proof of their torment without fear of retribution.
“I have literally watched him come out of his shell,” said Christian's mother, Shea Love, 40. “He has a hard time speaking up for himself, but he's looking at this as a fight for other people, not for himself.”
Common Pleas Judge Robert C. Gallo signed an order Thursday, earlier than expected, withdrawing a disorderly conduct charge against Stanfield for recording his classmates' taunts on Feb. 11. Originally, prosecutors said they planned to withdraw the charge April 29.
District Judge Maureen McGraw-Desmet convicted Stanfield on March 19 and ordered him to pay a $25 fine, plus court costs. He'll still have to apply to have the conviction expunged from his record, the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office said.
Stanfield, who has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactive disorder, comprehension delay disorder and an anxiety disorder, told McGraw-Desmet that he recorded his bullies to show his mother the extent of the abuse.
The case drew outrage from parents and former victims of bullying, with phone calls and email messages of support pouring in from as far as California, said Jonathan Steele, Stanfield's attorney.
Steele commended the district attorney's decision.
“I think someone more removed from the situation had a chance to look at the facts, look at the law, and determine this was not an appropriate look at the law,” he said.
Steele said he believes he now has an even stronger case when he files a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education. “Given that the district was previously relying on the magistrate's conviction as a strength for their position, I think this only strengthens our claim,” he said.
According to a transcript of Stanfield's hearing, high school Principal Scott Milburn called South Fayette police Lt. Robert Kurta on Feb. 12 to report what he characterized as a “wiretapping incident.” Milburn and other administrators listened to the seven-minute recording and forced Stanfield to delete it. Kurta said he did not hear the recording and relied on what Milburn told him.
Claudio Cerullo, president and founder of Teach Anti-Bullying Inc., a Philadelphia-based nonprofit, said he suspects the district was trying to protect itself by having Stanfield delete the recording.
“In my humble opinion, the district was just covering their behinds,” Cerullo said. “To say the kid did something illegal is just ludicrous.”
“The things they were saying in court, it's like they were trying to save face because they weren't responding to my complaints. They thought they would delete it and it would go away,” she said.
In a prepared statement released Wednesday, the district said it follows its policies on harassment and bullying, and treats reports of bullying “timely and serious, and with the utmost care and sensitivity. Maintaining a safe educational environment for all students in all respects has been and will continue to be of uppermost importance to the South Fayette Township School District and its personnel.”
School administrators and school board members repeatedly have declined to comment on Stanfield's case.
According to a transcript of the hearing, Love sent her son's teacher at least four email messages complaining about other students' behavior toward her son. It's unclear whether they were disciplined.
Despite Kurta's claim that he called the District Attorney's Office to get advice about filing a charge against Stanfield, Mike Manko, a spokesman for DA Stephen A. Zappala Jr., said no one in his office who is authorized to give advice on wiretap issues or school conduct issues was contacted.
“We have made multiple attempts to contact the officer who wrote the citation. Those attempts have been unsuccessful. It is our intention to withdraw the citation on April 29 because we do not believe his conduct rises to the level of a citation,” Manko said.
Kurta did not return calls. A police department spokeswoman said he is on vacation.
Love said withdrawing the charge is the “first step,” but she remains concerned about bullying.
“There's so much more to do,” she said.
She and her son plan to petition the state Legislature to include a whistle-blower clause in the wiretapping law, she said.
“We're going to regroup, take a short vacation and start on trying to change the world.”